On Writers

To Light Attained

by Morris Lurie,
Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne 2008.
Address to Launch,
Hill of Content Bookshop 30 October 2008.

Good evening, Morris, his friends, and his daughter Rachel, tragically no longer with us but whom we love;

Launching Morris’s memoir of his parents, Whole Life, which book was also a remarkable feat, I remember spending some time on the final scene, in which he conjures the presence of his long gone mother and father and becomes a musician, performs music for them both, delighting them, perhaps for the first time in his so-far life. Poignant, but more poignant is the gift he made them, and which his book alone could give them: everlasting life.

This new memoir, To Light Attained, has far more ambitious and complicated metaphysics. I suspect it shares the same goal as the verse in 1 Corinthians, nothing less than the defeat of death. Morris doesn’t ask of Death ‘Where is thy sting?’ He concedes sting aplenty. Indeed so horrifying a pain as to make its defeat necessary, then inevitable.

The artistic method which Morris devised to accomplish such magic with Rachel I’ll defer a moment because I’d rather end with it, and look for a moment at the nature of recall which Morris summons to hand, to fashion the material, his vivid footage of things past, his bottomless archive. I believe that, among the literary greats are a few who wrote master works which were wonderful influences on good readers, but harmful for good writers. One of the few is Marcel Proust. As long as I’ve known Morris, many decades now, he has been an evangelical admirer of Proust, and so, because of the use of sensibilities which shape this book, I remove Proust from the list of dangerous influence, but in Morris’s case only.

Morris’s abstract printed on the rear cover defines the focus for his work: ‘To record, to relive, to honour with fullest art and ability the beloved existence of his daughter’s however stopped nevertheless complete life.’ ‘Nevertheless complete life’; he says and this is an accurate, a telling claim, I believe, as I’ve thought about it increasingly at my age, with more and more absent friends: a life is a life, and linear measurement of it in temporal terms isn’t useful, somewhat due to our definitions of ‘time,’ the best of which seems to be ‘time is the mechanism which prevents everything from happening at once.’ A life is a life, and the loss we may properly regret is the brevity of continuing overlap of the lives we have. Morris’s Rachel-book begins as a howl of pain and bewilderment, yet an imperative in its progress is to extend the overlap of those two close and loving lives.

The closeness of their lives disturbed the father’s psychiatrist:She confesses a bad taste in her mouth. He speeds her to his dentist, never mind the account, for this first appointment sits in the waiting room outside.
You must let go, says his shrink.
Or he will cook her a meal in his flat.
She’s the only person you seem able to talk to, says his shrink.
Noting in his diary the shrink’s edge of anger.
Or he will drive her and her girlfriends for a day in the country, the jumper he’s bought her, posed proud alongside in a discovered miracle of snow.
You’re having a relationship with your daughter, says his shrink.
Inscribing in his journal his own tone of rage.
Session after session.
His handwritten fury.
You have to let go, says his shrink.

Let’s notice there, as in all the scenes of poignant association of events, the voice of, perhaps best called, ‘stream of recollection’ of the narrator, where happenings are drawn across time, out of time, attracted to each other by some sort of force-field of sensibility to become arranged together for pure emotional work, never mind chronology, again timeliness is made irrelevant.

In recollection everything does happen at once, it’s the magical artistry of emotional selection which creates the order, the linear experience for the reader. Exactly this magical artistry is the spectacular triumph of the work.

When newly bereaved, this father takes up his compulsive and only partly conscious search for his daughter, in places they were once, or often, together; to spot her from his passing car, or by the bay on the beach, or at a certain corner still seeking her alive rushing face. Just in case. By this stage Rachel is our familiar too, by this stage the writer does away with dialogue attribution, we know her voice, her quirks, her various tones, when she speaks we hear her as he does.

Now we are coming close to a point we could call the climax: At a time Rachel should becoming less real, for us she is becoming more real, just as she is for her father. He now knows where and when to expect her, and in the last line of this writing, for the first time he utters her name, yes Rache, in acknowledgement, to her, of her real and forever presence with him.

Wonderful, in any branch of artistry, when one’s most recent work is the finest yet of a body of work. Rachel, you’ll be proud of your dad, as are his friends, who now, please, applaud him.